In the days after the Steelers lost to the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XLV, General Manager Kevin Colbert was asked for his assessment of the team's season, and he was matter-of-fact. "We were good enough for second, but second isn't good enough."
The 2011 Steelers finished with the same 12-4 regular season record as the previous season's team, but this time it ended in the Wild Card Round of the playoffs and in dramatic fashion with an overtime loss to Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos. And Colbert was just as matter-of-fact in his assessment.
"Honestly when I look at this year's team compared to last year's, I think it was a very similar team. Last year's team had the benefit of home-field advantage while this year's team didn't. Unfortunately, we didn't play well enough to overcome not having this benefit," said Colbert. "It was pretty much the same team, the results were very similar during the regular season, except we were eliminated much quicker in the playoffs than we had hoped."
All of that is history now, though, and Colbert is looking ahead to 2012.
"We have a pretty good handle on the improvements we have to make. One game might break your season because it ends your season, but it doesn't necessarily define your season. I think you have to look at the whole body of work and see where you stand.
So, where does Colbert see the Steelers as they head into an offseason that will kick-off when free agency begins on March 13?
"We're not at a crossroads. We're not in the rebuilding stage. The best way to put it is we need to re-tool," said Colbert. "We need to keep adding young players into the mix, continue to hope our overall progression out-runs our regression. If we continue to do that, we'll have our chances to be successful."
Colbert also addresses a variety of other issues:
Q. The Steelers' salary cap situation has been described by President Art Rooney II as "something that forces us into some difficult decisions." Is there a plan in place to deal with this?
A. It's not like this surprises us. We saw this coming. We knew we would have to make changes after this season, and we're prepared to do that both with re-structuring some contracts and there also will be some terminations. And there will be some roster additions we will make, either through the draft or possibly in free agency. We're going to look to upgrade any way possible, like we always do, but not without some subtractions first, or re-structures.
Q. These subtractions, are they going to be a significant event, in terms of both the numbers of players released and who those players are?
A. It's not going to be a total re-build. It's going to be a re-tool. What combination it's going to be, I can't tell you because that depends on how much re-structuring we can do, which has to be negotiated. That's an ever-evolving process that probably won't be solved until March 12.
Q. What's the process involved in deciding who gets cut? Does it lean more toward the cap number of the player, his age, or is it always more about his production?
A. Ultimately you make decisions based on what's best for your football team, and that's a combination of talent and cap. It's not solely cap. If a player has a high cap number, then he should be performing at a high level and have a chance to continue performing at a high level. Your evaluations are going on all year. It's not something you sit down and do at the end of the season. You get a feel for where your team is and where it needs to improve even as you're still playing. You're trying to win week to week, but that's more the coach's job. Part of my job is to be thinking about how we can assist the coaches in trying to win week to week, but I'm also keeping an eye on the big picture as to what we really are and what we need to do, not only to try to win a championship in a given year but also to try to secure opportunities to win a championship in future years.
Q. Were you in agreement that the offense needed to change its direction?
A. No, but I also want to say I don't disagree with that either. Offense defense, special teams – I don't think any one single phase is responsible for winning and losing. I don't care if you have a great offense and a weak defense, or a great defense and a week offense or special teams, it all has to work together. The only common denominator is players, in my opinion, and I'm responsible for getting players. Were we good enough in any phase of the game? Not when we get eliminated in the first round of the playoffs. That's a reflection on the players that we have, which is a reflection on the job I did.
Q. What do you know about Todd Haley in terms of how his hiring might affect your job? Are the Steelers back in the fullback business, are there different kinds of linemen or receivers that are best suited to what he wants to do on offense?
A. Anytime there's a staff addition from the outside, it's a learning process for everybody. It's a learning process for the new staff member, and it's a learning process for us. We're not going to vary from what we believe will be successful for the Pittsburgh Steelers. We want good players who are healthy, and we want good people. We're never going to vary from that. A new coach's personality – his likes and dislikes – you may factor that in to some extent, but that's never going to change the basic foundation of what we look for in players. In my 28 years in this business, I've never been associated with an organization that drafted for a system. It's not that complicated, finding the best players.
Q. You have three quarterbacks who are unrestricted free agents – Byron Leftwich, Charlie Batch and Dennis Dixon. What is the plan there?
A. We've added a couple of guys in the offseason. Troy Smith has some experience as a starter and a backup in this league. He's a young backup (27). And then we have Jerrod Johnson, a kid we liked last year coming out of Texas A&M. We're excited to have those two guys in the mix. That being said, our backups have served us very well, and we've had to have all three of those guys. They've all been a part of our success, in some form or fashion. We'll be entertaining that group as well. We're never going to come up short on quarterbacks. We've all learned, especially from the 2010 season, that you need to be stocked at that position.
Q. There never seems to be much movement among the restricted free agents year to year. Why is that?
A. Draft picks are very valuable. In our opinion, the draft picks are too valuable. We'd rather sign a young unrestricted free agent who's coming off his first contract. Draft picks are just too valuable in today's system.
Q. Will the Steelers be able to sign any unrestricted free agents because of the team's salary cap situation?
A. Yes. This thing evolves day to day. We had our preliminary free agency meetings last week. As we were going through our evaluations, I emphasized to the coaches and the scouts that this can change, and it will change. The guys we thought might be interesting might not be interesting the more we look at them. They may go from uninteresting to interesting because all of a sudden they didn't have the market they thought they would have and now they can fit into our cap situation. It evolves. Will we be big players in free agency. Doubtful. We never are. Will we be doing our due diligence and strike if the right circumstances present themselves? Yes.
Q. What is the situation with Max Starks, an unrestricted free agent once again? Is there interest in bringing him back?
A. Unfortunately for him and us, Max tore his ACL in the final game. He's currently rehabilitating that, he'll continue to rehab it during the spring. That's not a four or six-month process. That's possibly a year-long process. We'll monitor his health, but you can't say enough about what he did for us last year. We hope for his sake that he recovers.
Q. Are you going to use the franchise tag on any of the unrestricted free agents?
A. The franchise tag is always available for us to use. We don't like to use it, but we will use it if it's necessary.
Q. Is there a pecking order when it comes to re-signing your unrestricted free agents?
A. Yes, but it's very loose at this point. It's not as black-and-white as it might be perceived, because it changes often throughout the spring. It's just like playing a game. You might have a game plan going in, but you might be changing your plan after the first quarter.
Q. What does it mean to be one of the teams to have a legitimate franchise quarterback?
A. We're very fortunate to have a franchise quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger because there are only a handful in this league. Having one provides us with a better opportunity to win a Super Bowl. When you don't have one, you spend a lot of time looking for one. When you do have one, you feel mandated to make sure that player has as many good players around him on offense, defense and special teams so that we don't miss his window.
Q. Do you have a read yet where the 2012 draft is deep?
A. Right now, pre-combine, again it goes back to the proliferation of spread offenses in college – there is a very good wide receiver group and a very good cornerbacks group. Fullbacks and tight ends are like dinosaurs – there are not a lot of them.